A test site for unmanned drones located at Virginia Tech to conduct research into integrating such aircraft into U.S. airspace has been opened, the Federal Aviation Administration has announced.
The Virginia site joins five other research efforts in cities in New York, Texas, Nevada, North Dakota and Alaska.
Although located at Virginia Tech, the newest site will handle testing in areas of Virginia, New Jersey and Maryland, the FAA said in a release Wednesday.
“We have undertaken the challenge of safely integrating a new and exciting technology into the busiest, most complex airspace in the world,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the release.
Virginia Tech is participating in the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership with the University of Maryland and Rutgers University in New Jersey.
At a ceremony initiating the research center, FAA administrator Michael Huerta, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and officials from the three states observed a simulated drone mission by Virginia Tech researchers who guided an unmanned, multirotor drone to observe a simulated accident scene at a nearby special testing road.
The Virginia Smart Road is a 2.2-mile limited-access road, owned by the Virginia Department of Transportation and managed by Virginia Tech, utilized to test new transportation technologies.
“We are transitioning new types of aircraft into the nation’s skies that have tremendous potential to help people and create new industry,” said Virginia Tech President Timothy D. Sands. “Unmanned aircraft will be useful for agriculture, search-and-rescue missions, disaster response, research, and innovations.”
While the FAA currently does not allow the use of commercial drones, it is reportedly working to create operational guidelines, using input from the six testing locations.
“Having all six national test sites up and running will give us more and better data to help expand the safe use of unmanned aircraft into our airspace,” Huerta said.
As many as 7,500 commercial, private drones could be operating within 5 years of their being granted access to U.S. airspace, the FAA has predicted.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International says allowing commercial drones into American skies could contribute $13.6 billion to the U.S. economy by the end of this decade, and as much as $82 billion by the year 2025.
Not everyone thinks drones are a good idea, however, with concerns of privacy foremost in their arguments.
Allowing drones unfettered access to the skies over the U.S. could see the nation approaching “a surveillance society in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities,” the American Civil Liberties Union said in a 2012 report.